Heidi Ewing, known for co-directing documentaries like Jesus Camp and The Boys of Baraka, turned her lens to feature filmmaking in I Carry You With Me. The recently released, award-winning Spanish-language film centers on Iván (Armando Espitia) and Gerardo (Christian Vázquez), a gay couple battling stigma in Mexico. They move to the United States for opportunity, only to encounter new hurdles as undocumented immigrants.
Below, Ewing discusses the production, which she directed and co-wrote with Alan Page Arriaga.
The Advocate: You have a personal connection to the real-life couple who inspired the film. Tell us about your relationship to them.
Heidi Ewing: I broke many rules in the making of this film, not the least of which is “never make a movie about close friends.” But on a late night in 2012, my dear friends Iván and Gerardo recounted their life story to me, and it was, hands down, the most touching tale I had ever heard. It was impossible to resist the urge to share it with others. There was a deeply epic quality to the story, which in many ways is about remembering (and making sense of) the past. There’s flashbacks and flash-forwards and big, high-stakes decisions being made. The story just begged to be told as a dramatic film. It deserved that narrative treatment.
You're known as a documentarian, and the film incorporates some documentary elements as well. How did this background help you in telling this story, and how did the experience of feature filmmaking help you grow as an artist?
I think that filming real people facing real-life challenges in real-time for so many years has given me a few gifts that I brought with me to my first narrative film. An ear for authentic dialogue (e.g., most real people never actually finish a thought) helped me in the writing phase for sure. During the rehearsal and shooting, I was very open to working in the actors’ own experiences and inviting improvisation during takes. There is an exploratory looseness and thinking-on-your feet that comes with the nonfiction territory, so I tried to hold on to that and not become too rigid. But narratives are not docs — the feature director must be able to articulate her vision in every way long before the camera rolls. Decisions on look, feel, and tone are getting made long before they would be in a doc. These built-in realities gave me more discipline as an artist, and that high level of control over the look and feel of the film that you get as a narrative filmmaker was the reward. In the end, I tried to blend naturalism and cinematic poetry in each and every scene.
How has the film changed your perception of the American Dream?
I believe that many of us have become rather cynical about the term “American Dream.” I get that. We’ve seen so much inequality and glaring cracks in our democratic institutions over the last few years that this concept can feel outdated and cliché. But making this film made me understand that the term continues to exist because so many people who’ve come here have actually experienced their own version of it: a college education they would not have gotten back home, a job opportunity, financial security, or even a layer of physical safety that some of our social freedoms do provide. The real Iván and Gerardo, on whom this film is based, made me see the American Dream in practice, up close, from their perspective. But I’ve also witnessed the steep price one pays to achieve this dream: endless hours of backbreaking work, a frequent feeling of alienation, profound homesickness, and the very real fear of deportation.
What do you want viewers to carry away from the film?
At its core, I Carry You With Me explores the allure — and the cost of — the American Dream as well as the power of love to propel us to do things we never thought we could. Our characters are immigrants, yes, but also sons and fathers and strivers and dreamers: fully fledged men on a breathtaking journey that forces them to face an irreversible decision. My hope is that people walk away feeling that they have lived fully in the shoes of these two men and come away filled with love in their hearts.
I Carry You With Me is now out in select theaters. Watch the trailer below.